New data dashboard to help councils deal with local Covid19 outbreaks

Council public health departments are shortly due to have access to a new Covid19 data dashboard, it seems. The data will apparently be localised enough to be useful in identifying and containing/suppressing any local outbreaks of Covid 19, eg at schools, hospitals, workplaces or in streets or blocks of flats.

This was revealed yesterday by Leeds City Council chief Tom Riordan, according to a report in the Local Government Chronicle

Tom Riordan is the lead for contact tracing on the committee, chaired by Baroness Harding, that oversees the privatised national Covid19 test/trace scheme.

This privatised system has bypassed existing NHS and Public health notifiable disease and contact tracing procedures, that for decades have successfully contained and eliminated outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Update 14 July 2020 – one month later, Councils are still not getting the data they need.

Late and complicated system for notifying Council’s public health department of Covid19 infections

As a result of bypassing local notifiable disease reporting procedures, the government has now had to set up a delayed and complicated system for getting local data back to local Councils and Clinical Commissioning Groups.

The privatised Covid 19 testing and tracing system for the general public – aka Pillar 2 – means that the Lighthouse Labs are responsible for analysing tests and collecting and reporting the results data.

So before data can come through to Councils about Covid19 tests and contacts of people who test positive, Public Health England first has to collect the test results from the hastily set up, privatised Lighthouse Labs.

Update 18 October: The Lighthouse Labs’ test results data fails to interface with the existing Public Health England tests database – the Second Generation Surveillance System (SGSS) – that’s plugged into NHS Path labs to receive their data.

Instead, the Lighthouse Labs send their data to Public Heatlh England via .csv files, that Public Health England then has to upload to the government’s testing dashboard in the form of Excel spreadsheets.

As Sky News reporter Ed Conway reported on 6 October:

The friction between these two systems – Pillar 1 labs, which constitute the established labs in hospitals around the country, and Pillar 2, which constitute the new centralised mostly privately-run labs created specifically in the face of the disease – is one of the main problems which has bedevilled Britain’s testing system.
This latest data disaster is only the latest episode.
Rather than feeding its results securely straight into SGSS, as Pillar 1 pathology labs do, the test results from Pillar 2 labs arrive at PHE in the form of a CSV file.
CSV, in case you haven’t yet encountered it, is about the most basic spreadsheet format that exists, with data separated by commas.
That CSV file is then automatically fed into an Excel template, which then feeds it into the government’s testing dashboard.
In data management terms, this is a little like putting together a car with sellotape, for reasons PHE discovered on Friday….There are many unsettling things about this but perhaps the most unsettling is that this process – with data sellotaped together – is at the very apex of Britain’s COVID-19 management system.
For only after PHE has processed the data is it passed onto the contact tracers who can then get to work trying to isolate those who have been in contact with infected people.

Apparently the Joint Biosecurity Centre is also working with local authorities and public health teams in PHE, including local Directors of Public Health, to identify localised outbreaks and support effective local responses, including plans to quickly deploy testing facilities to particular locations.

Debs Harkins, director of public health for Calderdale Council, told the Local Government Chronicle that because of gaps in the Covid-19 test results data she does not know how many people in Calderdale have been tested altogether for Covid-19. This throws into doubt the data on positive test cases, which suggests low incidence of Covid 19 in Calderdale.

How does this new data dashboard work?

It seems the new Covid19 data dashboard, which is for use by directors of public health, council representatives and clinical commissioning groups,

“combines three data sources: NHS Digital’s Covid-19 national testing programme database, the consolidated data covering the National Testing Programme and the 111/999 data about the rate of calls relating to Covid-19.”

Local Government Chronicle report

Who knows what the “consolidated data covering the national testing programme” is?

And what’s NHS Digital’s Covid-19 national testing programme database? This is what I found when I looked online for it: basically, that it’s impossible to find what’s on it.

Clicking on the Standards and collections link takes you here, with the information that:

Data Coordination Board (DCB) activity suspended

Formal DCB activity is paused to allow resources to be diverted to support frontline activity in the response to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Missing pieces in Calderdale’s Covid19 jigsaw

Whatever the data sources, the new data dashboard will apparently allow Councils and Clinical Commissioning Groups to view anonymised data on the total number of tests conducted, as well the total number of positive tests, including a rolling average timescale at council level.

Whether it will include data about the number of PEOPLE tested, and the number of negative tests, remains to be seen.

Deborah Harkins told the Local Government Chronicle that the new data dashboard,

“…is the missing pieces in the jigsaw and really will help us manage local circumstances and protect people locally.
“So if we have track and trace data and we can see a few cases emerging, and 111 calls made in this area, that will enable us to deliver bespoke local messages  to those people about staying at home and getting tested – and to make them understand to separate themselves from the vulnerable.”

Too little, too late, too privatised, too unlawful?

This British Medical Journal blog post is a useful explanation of How the erosion of our public health system hobbled England’s covid-19 response.

The Department of Health’s first Weekly NHS Test and Trace bulletin 28 May- 3 June 2020 shows that over that week, 31,794 contacts of people who tested positive for Covid19 were identified. Of these, 26,985 were reached and asked to self isolate.

But only 8,117 people who tested Covid19 positive were transferred into the government’s contact tracing system. And of these, Serco only got in touch with 5, 278 contacts. The remaining 21,707 contacts were traced by public health teams.

This does seem to beg the question of what Serco is being paid for – apart from cementing its position in the NHS, as its Chief Executive has notoriously announced.

This is a question that many people are asking. The recent Survation poll found that only 27% of people have confidence that Serco will “manage their track and trace programme contract effectively”.

An even bigger question is – why did the government bypass the legal process for notifying Covid19 infections directly to local public health authorities?

Notifiable diseases process has not happened during Covid 19 pandemic

The legal procedure for notifiable diseases such as Covid19, is for GPs to directly inform their local Public Health authority about patients with notifiable diseases. This doesn’t even need a test – diagnosis on the basis of symptoms is ok.

This means local public health departments can act swiftly to contain and suppress any outbreaks.

But that system has been bypassed for the Covid 19 pandemic. From the start, the government told people not to contact their GPs if they have Covid19 symptoms, but to go on the NHS 111 website instead, or call 111 if need be.

As a result, neither GPs nor Councils’ public health departments have had a clue about the whereabouts and numbers of people with Covid19, and how to get in touch with their contacts. Not exactly great for containing and suppressing the virus.

NHS Covid-19 Data Store urgently needs independent oversight

While we’re on the subject of Covid-19 data, there is also this NHS COVID‑19 Data Store – a vast database that contains sensitive data from a range of sources.

It seems to include Pillar 1 test data and the outputs from the DHSC / Deloitte Digital System: the booking data for all tests for pillar 2 – regional and satellite test centres, and mobile testing units. It has been built to provide ministers with

“real-time information about health services, showing where demand is rising and where critical equipment needs to be deployed.”

Big Brother Watch reports widespread concerns that

There is a lack of clarity as to how data is being collected, how it is being used and for what purpose. Contracts state that the purpose of the Data Store is to “track and predict the spread of Covid-19”, but also has the more ambiguous remit to “model interventions” and to “optimise health & community resources.”

The government awarded secret contracts to a range of companies including Palantir, Faculty, Microsoft, Amazon and Deloitte, to collect and analyse this data, which is in turn fed into ‘daily dashboards’ informing the Government response to the pandemic.

After public pressure, the UK government finally published the contracts governing its deals with Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Palantir and Faculty, just hours before campaign groups Foxglove and openDemocracy were due to issue proceedings in court.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Artificial Intelligence recommended that an oversight board for the NHS Covid-19 Datastore be established, with a specific data protection remit

“to guarantee the fair and ethical application of any data-driven public health measures.”

Parliamentary Brief: How can AI help in the fight against COVID-19? –APPG AI, 20thMay 2020:

More info in this Big Brother Watch report, p52-58.

Updated 14 July 2020 with info about the NHS Covid-19 Data Store and the fact that government is still not giving Councils the test and trace data they need to suppress Covid-19 in their areas. And 6 October 2020 with info about the Lighthouse Labs/Pillar 2 data transfer process to Public Health England and from there to the government’s Covid-19 data tracker.


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